Disclaimer: This post contains an upsetting image. If you’re not okay with that, I’d recommend you skip this one.
In the early 2000s Israeli authorities began to construct a ‘security fence’ roughly along the green line, the ceasefire line from 1948 which demarcates Israel from the West Bank. Over a decade later, that wall is still under construction. It’s estimated that when completed, it will be over 700km long and the majority will have been built upon Palestinian territory.
Depending on whom you speak to, you may hear the wall referred to as an ‘annexation wall’, an ‘apartheid wall’, or a ‘security fence’. Whilst linguistic conjuring by both sides may serve to blur the motives behind its creation, its impact is undeniable – it separates Israel, and Israelis, from the occupied territories, and separates many Palestinians from their jobs, their families, and their right to freedom of movement.
But as the world becomes rapidly more interconnected, this divide exists not only physically but also increasingly digitally. Digital technologies, the internet, apps; they have all proven themselves incredibly divisive, whether by perpetuating and reinforcing the structural integrity of these divided groups, or by generating conflict themselves.
Snapchat, the popular image messaging app, unwittingly waded into the fray of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recently, by creating a ‘Tel Aviv Life’ geo-tagged snap ‘story’ on the anniversary of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. The story featured short video clips and photos of young Israelis at the beach, surfing, and enjoying ‘shawarma Tuesday’.
But whilst those in the videos appear to be having a good time, the reaction from many Palestinians has been far less positive.
Posts have appeared across Facebook and Twitter criticising the App maker’s timing, arguing that the Snapchat story doesn’t accurately depict the reality of life in the country or the history of the region. Hashtags such as #SnapchatForGaza and #StopTelAvivLive have also been trending. Some users went as far as creating their own versions:
Many of the tweets and posts unfold arguments along familiar lines; debating the Arab exodus in 1948, the growth of the State of Israel from its original mandated territory, and the continuing dire conditions in the Gaza strip. These are grand, overarching themes and arguments, taking place in an app more familiar with ‘selfies’ than geopolitics. Snapchat champions the ephemeral; it is primarily used to document life on an extremely personal, banal, and often mundane scale, designed for sharing such details with friends. The documentation of life in Tel Aviv shows exactly that – young people, happily living their lives. The most evocative response the Snapchat story I heard came from a young Palestinian friend, who drew parallels with her day-to-day existence;
Why are they having fun whilst I’m being held up at checkpoints and being discriminated against?
In response to the social media outcry, Snapchat announced the following:
On twitter, many were skeptical as to whether or not Snapchat would show the ‘reality’ of life in the West Bank.
Once the ‘story’ went live, these fears were dispelled to an extent featuring images of the separation wall and checkpoints:
Talking to Mondoweiss one Twitter user said he felt that it
‘…humanizes Palestinians in the West Bank and shows there is more to their life than what is usually seen on the news’
whilst another was generally happy with the opportunity, but believed Snapchat to be ‘filtering content which they deemed political’. Other users highlighted problems they had uploading snaps whilst not on Wi-Fi:
According to the Al-Jazeera in the post, Israel refuses to grant the Palestinian Authority ‘sufficient bandwidth’ in order to permit a 3g network, leaving Jawwal and Wataniya (the West Bank’s two mobile services providers) with the decades old 2G, ‘even as telecom companies throughout the Middle East prepare to launch 4G capabilities’.
The Snapchat saga is just the latest in a long line of digital manifestations of the conflict, and as with the global media these struggles are for control of the narrative. But, the geographical division of communities by walls and unequal access to technology isn’t the only problematic divide.
Recreating the distance
During Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s assault on the Gaza strip in 2014, the internet was aflame. Supporters from both sides – activists, journalists, politicians, ‘by-standers’ – all chimed in with their two pence across social media, especially Twitter. The Israeli Defence Force’s well-oiled social media operation leapt to life:
Many of the IDF’s posts seek to pre-empt familiar lines of argument, and justify their actions. Tweets during this period often featured a map demonstrating the range of the rockets being fired from Gaza, reiterating the threat posed by them. Others proclaim words to the effect of ’No nation would tolerate constant rocket attacks, and neither will we’. Others still offer ’satellite’ footage, demonstrating Hamas’ use of ‘human shields’, or ‘firing from civilian areas’.
From within Gaza however, the media operated was less slick and had a considerably lower production budget, but many were equally powerful:
Following a missile attack on UNWRA school near Rafah, data scientist Gilad Lotan set out to understand and visualise how those involved in the online debates were organised and connected. He analysed the relationships between ‘nodes’. As he explains:
Nodes are Twitter handles, and their connections represents follow relationships. The larger a node, the higher its centrality, the more followed that account is within this group. The closer together two nodes, the more connections they share. Different colors represent communities, effectively regions that display significant levels of connectivity; nodes of the same color are much more inter-connected compared to the rest of the graph.
From his findings, Lotan created a ’network graph’, a visual representation of the relations between the twitter handles, how many connections they share, where they fall in relation to other handles. As Lotan summarizes, ‘In this case, we see a clear separation between the two sides.’
The gulf between those on either side is enormous. Social media operates based on networks and information flows through these established connections – as a result, information and content is unlikely to move from one network to another, unless said networks are themselves considerably connected or entwined.
Additionally, systems of recommendations act to try and tempt us with more of what we enjoy; if we’re following pages about a specific type of food, or a celebrity, then the chances are that in the side bar you’re going to see more of the same. Social media sites want you to be addicted, and to survive they rely upon you becoming hooked in order that you’ll return frequently. Whilst this might be great for advertisers, it’s not great for creating diversity or promoting pluralism. As Lotan writes;
The underlying algorithmics powering this recommendation engine help reinforce our values and bake more of the same voices into our information streams.
Whilst the internet was once hailed as a force for democratising society – something that would bring us closer together – it seems that it’s doing completely the opposite.
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have a strong online presence, with a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog, a Youtube page, and an Instagram account. (LINK THESE). On the anniversary of Operation Protective Edge, the IDF social media accounts were reiterating their narrative;
During Operation Protective Edge, data scientist Gilad Lotan analysed the response of social media users following an Israeli Air Force (IAF) missile attack on a UN school in Rafah. Lotan created a ‘network graph’ of his findings;
Network graphs are mathematical tools used to model relations between objects, and are incredibly helpful when working with social data. Analyzing their structure helps us gain insight into our culture and society. In this case, we see a clear separation between the two sides.
On the right, a clearly “pro-Palestinian” group of activists (in green) as well as a variety of media outlets and journalists (in gray). The gray cluster of bloggers, journalists and international media entities is closely connected with the group of pro-Palestinian activists, which means that information is much more likely to spread amongst the two. This structural characteristic of the graph reinforces general Israeli sentiment regarding international media bias.
None of the information shared is false per se, yet users make deliberate choices about what they choose to amplify. This is a representation of their values, and the values of their connections. Messages passed along in one side of the graph will never reach the other.
– Google Palestine/Israel?
Prison sentence for Palestinian kid that posted on Facebook vs. Shaked’s remarks.
Netanyahu’s Farsi account vs. #AskHamas
Do Palestinians feel comfortable writing critically of the PA?
Gilad Lotan’s conflict map of Twitter, Gaza war
IDF’s twitter propaganda
WARNING, THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS IMAGES OF WAR WHICH SOME READERS MAY FIND UPSETTING.
Rebuilding the wall: the digital divide in the Israel-Palestinian conflict
In the early 2000s Israeli authorities began to construct a ‘security fence’ roughly along the green line, the ceasefire line from 1948 which demarcates Israel from the West Bank. Over a decade later, that wall is still under construction. It’s estimated that when it is completed, it will be over 700km long and a large amount will have been built upon Palestinian territory. The actual wall is almost 8 meters high in places, constructed from reinforced concrete, surrounded by razor wire, and decorated (on one side) with graffiti ranging from anti-Israeli slogans to ‘MAKE HUMMUS NOT WAR’. Depending on whom you speak to you, you may hear the wall referred to as an ‘annexation wall’, an ‘apartheid wall’, or a ‘security fence’. Whilst linguistic conjuring by both sides may serve to blur the motives behind its creation, its impact is undeniable – it separates Israel from the territories it occupies. And, as the signs highlight, it divides the people of Israel from those in the territories it occupies.
But as the world becomes rapidly more interconnected, this divide exists not only physically but also digitally. Digital technologies, the internet, apps; they have all proven themselves incredibly divisive in this scenario, whether by perpetuating and reinforcing the structural integrity of these divided groups, or by generating conflict themselves.